Pursuit of Truthiness

my gut tells me I know economics

Archive for the ‘James’ Bookshelf’ Category

Brainiac, by Ken Jennings- Highlights

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“If I’d had my way, this would have been just another quickie C-list celeb cash-in, full of my shallow ghostwritten thoughts on why tolerance is good and pollution is bad, filled out with some baby pictures and holiday recipes.”

In fact, in addition to telling the story of Jennings’ time on Jeopardy, it is a fascinating history of trivia, and exploration of whether and how trivia can be useful. Much of this is about quiz bowl:

“Quiz bowl has become a de facto farm club for the big-time game shows… when I took the written test at my Jeopardy audition, I remember thinking how much more arcane and elaborate a quiz bowl question on each of the fifty covered subjects would have been. I felt like a runner who’d been training in high-altitude Mexico City, just to get his lungs in such supercharges shape that events at lower elevations seemed like a piece of cake.”

“I’m no trivia superhero- at every college quiz bowl tournament I ever played in, there were other players who could double my score….I got lucky.” You and me both, Ken.

Quiz bowl prepares people well for answering questions correctly, if not necessarily for the other parts of being on TV: “List the five cleverest, most charming things about yourself! Do it in one sentence! Be funny!”

“Jeopardy, by its own contestant rules, is a once-in-a-lifetime chance. If you get a cramp in the last mile of a marathon or don’t quite make it up Everest, there is always next year. but you only get one shot at Jeopardy, and odds are you’re going to lose that very first game. Jeopardy is a shark, mowing through America’s self-declared intelligentsia with its huge, shiny teeth, claiming victims at the implacable rate of two a night (check local listings). You have to be in pretty good shape to escape the teeth for a night or two, but they get everyone eventually.” Way to end this on a high note…

“Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be anymore.”

Written by James Bailey

July 2, 2016 at 5:28 pm

Pope Francis and Economics: A Partial Reconciliation

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It is always easiest to evaluate the views of others by fitting them into pre-existing categories. When Pope Francis released his first encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, many people pegged him as saying “left-wing economics good, free markets bad”. This lead to celebrations on the left and denunciations on the right. Some thought him to be showing ignorance of, or even Pope Paul V vs Galileo style hostility to, economic science.


After actually reading much of the encyclical, I found it much more nuanced. In particular, the Pope seems to be deeply ambivalent about the welfare state, warning of those who exploit the poor for their own political interest. He would much prefer that people earn a living through work:

“Welfare projects, which meet certain urgent needs, should be considered merely temporary responses”

“it is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labour that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives”

Of course, he does want these workers to be earning a “just wage”. While many readers will assume this implies a government-mandated minimum wage, Francis doesn’t go there; one could just as well expect that he is encouraging just wages through increased human capital, tax credits, employer generosity, or something else.

He is generally supportive of private property and business:

“The private ownership of goods is justified by the need to protect and increase them, so that they can better serve the common good”

“Business is a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life; this will enable them truly to serve the common good by striving to increase the goods of this world and to make them more accessible to all.”

Like many on the left, the Pope is worried about inequality. But his reason for worry isn’t really about the distribution of material goods, so much as the social distance that economic inequality can create:

“the worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of
spiritual care”

“No one must say that they cannot be close to the poor because their own
lifestyle demands more attention to other areas. This is an excuse commonly heard
in academic, business or professional, and even ecclesial circles”

For those worried about his Argentine background:

“I am far from proposing an irresponsible populism.”

He concedes a role for science in figuring out how best to do all this, though it does sound like he wants to make economics oikonomia again:

“Economy, as the very word indicates, should be the art of achieving a fitting management of our common home, which is the world as a whole.”

In any hundred page document, it can be too easy to cherry-pick quotes. Indeed this is what I have done here, if only to balance the much larger number of pieces that cherry-picked the quotes that seem to be from another side. But real people are usually more complex than a one-dimensional political spectrum.

Written by James Bailey

April 15, 2016 at 4:56 pm

Thoughts on Crime and Punishment

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  • Is Raskolnikov the least likeable protagonist of all time?
  • Great illustrations of what real poverty is like
    • Regular hunger, only one set of clothes (rags), turning to theft and prostitution
    • But not all sympathetic portrayal; one man drinks himself into poverty. Raskolnikov simply does nothing all day rather than work. Disdains going into business but then turns to murder.
    • Murder is hard to cover up when you are that poor! Have roommates, can’t afford a weapon and so must steal it, can’t throw away bloody clothes because they are your only set
  • Interesting half-parallel between Marmaladov and Raskolnikov. They both spend a lot of time wallowing in self-pity over their own weakness. M’s weakness is drinking away all his money while his kids go hungry. R’s “weakness” is having a conscience that tells him murder is wrong.
  • I’m not above being continually amused by funny Russian names
  • TVtropes seems surprisingly good at identifying the themes of this great work. (Attention conservation warning: TVtropes link)
  • Dostoevsky understood tobacco way earlier than medicine did!
    • “AH THESE cigarettes!” Porfiry Petrovitch ejaculated at last, having lighted one. “They are pernicious, positively pernicious, and yet I can’t give them up! I cough, I begin to have tickling in my throat and a difficulty in breathing. You know I am a coward, I went lately to Dr. B__n; he always gives at least half an hour to each patient. He positively laughed looking at me; he sounded me: ‘Tobacco’s bad for you,’ he said, ‘your lungs are affected.’ But how am I to give it up? What is there to take its place? I don’t drink, that’s the mischief, he-he-he, that I don’t. Everything is relative, Rodion Romanovitch, everything is relative!”
  • The book is interesting and readable, lots of subtlety but while reading it wasn’t clear to me why this is considered one of the all-time greats
    • This may be because it is hard to appreciate how original things were in their own time when they have since been heavily imitated. A bit of research seems to back this up
    • Many characters seem overly dramatic/histrionic
      • This may have been because Dostoevsky had a pretty dramatic personal life- spared execution at the last second thanks to a letter from the tsar; has his first seizure upon learning of the death of his father
    • I assumed throughout the whole book that Raskolnikov was a satire of Nietzsche’s ideas about ubermensch; then afterward I realize the book was published in 1866 and Nietzsche’s first publication was in 1870.

Written by James Bailey

January 15, 2016 at 12:35 pm

Operation Paperclip

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I just finished the great book of the same name by Annie Jacobson. I had heard of the program that brought Nazi scientists to America, but didn’t realize how big it was- several hundred scientists- or just how complicit in the holocaust many of the scientists were- from the slave labor that built Werner von Braun’s rockets, to medical experiments on unconsenting prisoners, to high positions in the SS, to straight up murder.

Nazi science shows the amazing things that can be accomplished with tons of money, no bureaucracy, no morals, and an endless supply of slave labor. Rockets, chemical and biological weapons all went from ideas to mass production in a few years. Most of the medical “experiments”, though, seem more like simple torture than attempts to learn anything.

The Paperclip program is classic example of Crisis and Leviathan- war (WWII) and the threat of war (Cold War) lead to bigger government and more relaxed moral standards. If we don’t do it, the Russians will.

I definitely didn’t realize the interaction between a lot of the craziest shit our military / intelligence / industrial complex was doing at this time. Paperclip scientists were involved in MK-ULTRA, Bluebird and Artichoke, dramatically accelerating the US chemical and biological weapons programs, and in dispersing pathogens in the US.

It was Richard Nixon that unilaterally shut down the US chemical weapons program in 1969- well done. Nerve gas is scarier shit than I realized. Even Hitler never used it, though they had thousands of tons of tabun. This makes Saddam Hussein, and our support of him during the Iran-Iraq war, look even worse.

One big lesson that I take from the book, though the author never mentions it- the importance of institutions. Almost all of the scientists who did the worst things in Nazi Germany ended up being successful, ethical scientists in the US, once they were placed in a system with very different incentives. In fact, the Paperclip scientist who did some of the worst things for the US, Fritz Hoffmann, was one of the only anti-Nazis in the program; but he was working in weapons areas where the US military had the fewest moral qualms at the time.

Annie Jacobson does a great job turning history and original historical research into an informative page-turner. My one disappointment with the book is in its moral dimension. Jacobson claims to dodge the question, saying that the morality of the paperclip program is up for each individual to decide. But she is always implying that it was a bad idea, while avoiding a real discussion. In particular, she never brings up the obvious analogy to the everyday criminal justice system. In one sense, Paperclip was an amazing rehabilitation program; there was almost no ‘recidivism’ among the scientists. But it certainly failed to exact retribution on bad actors, and may have created a deterrence-reducing moral hazard effect (perhaps knowing of such a program will lead others to commit crimes they would otherwise be afraid to). How valid was the argument that ‘if we don’t take them, the Soviets will’? Would the US and the world really be a better place if we had hung Werner von Braun and co as war criminals instead of letting them join NASA and help get humanity to the moon?
Science is power- both for what it allows humanity as a whole to do, and for scientists themselves. When governments realize the power of your ideas and abilities, you can get away with a lot. Nazis, Soviets, Americans, British, French all realized this- more than they do today. You’d think we would at least have standing visa offers to all scientists who aren’t war criminals, after expending so much money and effort to get those who are.

Written by James Bailey

August 5, 2015 at 3:03 pm

Wolf in White Van

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People were always saying how ugly Southern California was, especially when they came back from their summer vacations. They said it looked plastic or fake or whatever, and talked about all the cool things they saw in Ohio, where their grandparents lived. Or in Pennsylvania. The wall behind the arcade was made of giant sparkling white bricks, just like all the other buildings connected to it. There was graffiti on it, indecipherable gang writing. It was dark now and getting a little cold and then the super-bright lights they have behind stores to keep bums from sleeping by the dumpsters came on, and I thought, people who don’t think Southern California is the most beautiful place in the world are idiots and I hope they choke on their tongues.

John Darnielle, lead singer of The Mountain Goats, has successfully made the rare transition from songwriter to novelist with his new book, “Wolf in White Van.” The book’s protagonist has halfway grown up from being a misfit teen with troubled relationships and an obsession with the dark and fantastic. Pushing through mental illness, seeking solace in things like satanic rock and hitting the arcade with a girl also fleeing her family- it is not hard to draw connections between the world of the novel and songs like This Year, Amy AKA Spent Gladiator, and The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton.

As you might expect from one of the best lyricists around, the book is strongest at the level of sentences and paragraphs, which are often beautiful and revealing. But the larger structure of the story, which jumps back and forth through time while largely flowing backward, does work. Darnielle sets up mysteries and gradually, slowly reveals answers, with a few still left to work out by the end.


Written by James Bailey

June 6, 2015 at 4:25 pm

Medicare’s Midlife Crisis

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I just finished the 2002 book of the same name, by Sue Blevins.
Overall I found the book too polemic- it seems like the author doesn’t like Medicare and so wrote down all the arguments she could think of against it, even if some were weak or contradictory. But while I didn’t buy the book’s main arguments, I found a lot of interesting facts within, especially about the history of health insurance. I post them here:

Medicare is funded with public money, but claims are processed by private insurers: “Today, Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans process approximately 90 percent of Medicare Part A claims and about 57 percent of all Part B claims.” (p10)

There was a major government program aimed at covering seniors before the introduction of Medicare in 1965: “On September 13, 1960, President Dwight Eisenhower signed into law the ‘Medical Assistance for the Aged’ program, commonly known as the Kerr-Mills law. The program extended coverage to 10 million seniors whether or not they were receiving Social Security benefits and another 2.4 million on Old Age Assistance. All told, 77 percent of seniors were eligible for government assistance under the Kerr-Mills program.” (p20)

Many European countries set up national health insurance systems before 1914, starting with Germany’s Sickness Insurance Act in 1883. But World War I stopped the campaign to set up such a system in the US: “Compulsory health insurance became negatively linked with ‘made in Germany’ and ‘Bolshevism.'” (p27)

“The first hospital insurance program was created in the United States at Baylor University Hospital in Dallas in 1929…. initially it only covered Dallas schoolteachers” (p29)

The American Medical Association fought for years to shut down physicians’ group practices, until the Supreme Court ruled in 1943 they were violating the Sherman antitrust act. Given the explosion in occupation licensing in recent decades (which the current Court isn’t a fan of either), I think the courts’ unanimous opinion on this case, written by Justice Owen Roberts, should be known more broadly: “Professions exist because people believe they will be better served by licensing specially prepared experts to minister to their needs. The licensed monopolies which professions enjoy constitute in themselves severe restraints upon competition. But they are restraints which depend upon capacity and training, not privilege. Neither do they justify concerted criminal action to prevent the people from developing new methods of serving their needs. The people give the privilege of professional monopoly and the people may take it away.” (p33)

The idea of Medicare hospital insurance started as the King-Anderson bill in Congress, and was strongly backed by then-President Kennedy. Doctors and Republicans didn’t like the bill, and promoted alternatives of their own to try to kill it- the AMA proposed “Eldercare”, Republicans proposed “Bettercare”. Chairman Mills of the Ways and Means committee decides to take a new approach to legislative compromise- instead of splitting the difference between the three plans, just pass all of them- a “three-layered cake”. The Democratic proposal becomes Medicare Part A (hospital insurance), the Republican proposal becomes Medicare Part B (physician insurance), the AMA proposal becomes Medicaid. (p46)

Nowadays we are used to worrying the Medicare is going to bankrupt the federal government, and that much of Medicare’s spending is wasteful. But I didn’t realize that even supporters of Medicare had these worries as far back as 1968. President Johnson, who signed the law, said in 1968 that “Between 1965 and 1975, the cost of living will increase by more than 20 percent. But the cost of health care will increase by nearly 140 percent…. part of these increases will be expanded and improved health services. But a large part of the increase will be unnecessary- a rise which can be prevented.” (p59)

In the year 2000, 18% of medical spending by Medicare beneficiaries was out-of-pocket, a higher rate than that paid by the average American (and many Americans have no insurance at all, so pay everything out of pocket). In some ways Medicare really isn’t good insurance. It doesn’t do the one thing insurance really should, and which private plans are now legally required to do by the ACA- put a cap on how much you could possibly end up spending on medical care. (p72)

Thinking, Fast and Slow

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Daniel Kahneman’s new book amazes me. Not so much due to the content, though I’m sure that will blow your mind if you haven’t previously heard about it through studying behavioral economics or psychology or reading Less Wrong. It is the writing style: Kahneman is able to convey his message succinctly while making it seem intuitive and fascinating. Some academics can write tolerably well, but Kahneman seems to be on a level with those who write popularly with a living- the style of a Jonah Lehrer or Malcolm Gladwell, but no one can accuse the Nobel-prize-winning Kahneman of lacking substance.
This made me wonder if it is simply an unfair coincidence that Kahneman is great at both writing and research, or causation is at work here. True, in more abstract and mathematical fields great researchers do not seem especially likely to be great writers (Feynman aside). But to design and carry out great psychology experiments may require understanding the subject intuitively and through introspection. This kind of understanding- an intuitive understanding of everyday decision-making- may be naturally easier to share than other kinds of scientific knowledge, which use processes (say, math) or examine territories (say, subatomic particles) which are unfamiliar to most people. Kahneman says that he developed the ideas for most of his papers by talking with Amos Tversky on long walks. I suspect that this strategy leads to both good idea generation and a good, conversational writing style.

Written by James Bailey

April 13, 2013 at 12:34 pm